Books

New Book Recalls Turbulent Years at Brown

Former university president Gordon Gee’s wife tells her story

Barry Fain
Posted

At Sayles Hall on the Brown campus, handsome oil paintings depicting most of the former presidents of the university look down benignly on today’s crop of current undergrads. Even Sheila Blumstein, who served briefly as an interim president, has earned a presence amidst her august peers. In fact, as it turns out, only one of Brown’s 19 presidents is conspicuously absent.

Gordon Gee, the university’s 17th president, arrived on campus in 1998 and after two short years did the unthinkable: he forsook Brown, despite its ivy and centuries of history, for the southern charm (not to mention significantly bigger bucks) of Vanderbilt University, in Nashville. To the school, it was an unpardonable sin which explains why “he whose name can never be mentioned,” is now also “he whose portrait can never be painted.”

Among the explanations offered for Gee’s unexpected move at the time was that his wife Constance “never liked Brown and as a native North Carolinian had persuaded her husband to move south.” There were also mumblings that part of the problem involved her not receiving tenure. In her book published earlier this year, Ms. Gee, now Gordon’s ex-wife and a year-round resident of nearby Westport, MA, offers her take on what really happened behind the scenes here in Providence. She unequivocally disputes the tenure charges and her decision to ultimately return to our area certainly supports her claims that she had no great desire to leave Brown in the first place.

Her self-published book Higher Education: Marijuana at the Mansion is about a lot more than Brown, however. The tell-all tale about her life with Gordon at Ohio State, Brown and Vanderbilt is at once witty–fascinating at its glimpse into life at the top of major universities and often out-loud funny. While obviously presented from Ms. Gee’s irreverent point of view, Higher Education is almost painfully detailed as to the author’s own travails as her marriage crumbles under the pressure of a free spirit trying to fit in the rigid southern bureaucracy that controls schools like Vanderbilt. It also, at times in agonizing detail, documents the author’s long battle against Meniere’s disease and her decision to use medical marijuana as a bulwark against the debilitating pain she endured. It was a decision that ultimately did in her marriage.

While only a portion of the book deals with her two years in Providence, there are more than enough anecdotes to keep us locals entertained. Her sharp eye captures life on College Hill and the fun she had with stuffy Brunonians who only seemed to care about “where I went to school.” Her most unexpected barbs are aimed at her husband’s predecessor, Vartan Gregorian, who she accuses of French kissing her at a New York City fundraiser. Obviously there is plenty of tell in this tell-all! And for the record, Ms. Gee maintains that she never wanted to flee Providence, especially as her Westport home, Chez Consuela she calls it, became an increasingly essential underpinning for her peace of mind.

Many of the book’s funniest moments come as she describes her return to life in the south. Here’s one of her takes on life above and below the Mason-Dixon line: “Nashville has two white-tie affairs every year – the Swan Ball in June and the Symphony Ball in December – and a black-tie event just about every week, sometimes twice a week, depending on the season. These are ‘pay parties’ held in support of the arts, cultural or health service organizations, To name but a few black tie events, there’s the Ballet Ball, Opera Ball, Hunt Ball, Liberty Ball, Heart Ball and (I’m not making this up), Eye Ball... During our first year on the white and black-tie circuit, I asked a friend if she and her husband were going to the Heart Ball. She rolled her eyes and said, ‘No we just had to draw the line. We don’t go to parties for individual organs!’” As described by Ms. Gee, life at Braeburn, the chancellor’s mansion that housed she and her husband at Vanderbilt, was pretty much non-stop functions and fundraising. Sure, the Gee’s racked up some pretty lavish entertainment tabs, some $4.2 million over six years, the Wall Street Journal reported in a 2006 cover story. But then again the school raked in some $1.25 billion for its endowment over that same period. Not a bad return on one’s investment, suggests Ms. Gee.

Ms. Gee is brutal as she recounts the ups and downs of life as a university first lady. One can imagine the ripples her book must have produced amidst Nashville society. For the record locally, the author is particularly kind to the East Side’s Arty Joukowsky and his wife Martha but downright nasty towards Steve Robert, head of the Brown Corporation during Gordon’s brief tenure here, and of course President Gregorian. The latter two provide several of those “oh wow” moments in a book filled with them.

Much of the final part of the book describes the suffering she endured during her battle against the debilitating aspects of Meniere’s disease, an inner ear disease that can produce excruciatingly painful symptoms. Over time, Ms. Gee discovered that smoking pot could blunt some of the effects. But when word got out to the general community, it was clear the gentry at Vanderbilt were anything but pleased. Her irreverent liberal ways – she lowered the flag at the president’s mansion to half-staff after George W. won re-election for example – had already made her something less than beloved among the university’s southern aristocracy. “I went from Vanderbilt’s first lady to its first persona non grata in a stunningly short time.”

To her credit, Ms. Gee is as tough on herself as she is with others. She shares with us her insecurities over her teaching abilities and as her marriage deteriorates how she was strong-armed into a divorce. In the end, she admits her relationship with Gordon has caused her to now become more empathetic to other women who subject themselves to men out of fear and dependency. “There were times I feared Vanderbilt’s control of my husband and his power over me. I’d become dependent on Gordon for continued access to a prestigious lifestyle, for financial security and, most disturbingly, for my concept of who I was and what I was worth.”

Which leads into Gordon Gee’s role in the writing of the book. Ms. Gee readily admits that she still seeks his approval even now and that they had long discussions on portions of the book. As a result, the behind-the-scenes world of often-internecine university politics at the highest level is as fascinating as it is detailed.

As we suspected, life in the ivory tower is as cutthroat as any corporate boardroom. But the author’s irreverent, shoot-from-the-hip style infuses this message with unexpected wit, humor and poignancy. Though admittedly told from one point of view, Higher Education provides a not-often-seen view of academic life at the top. Higher Education: Marijuana at the Mansion is available on Amazon.

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